I come from a place where the traditional headwear offers protection from the harsher elements mother nature delivers. A sou’wester is worn mostly by seafarers. It’s an oilskin and has a wide brim in the back to keep the wind and rain from pelting the necks of fishermen. Another traditional topper is known as the 'salt and pepper'. It’s a knitted cap made from white and grey wool with a short bib on the front. Your ears might get cold but you can be assured that the crown of your head will be as toasty as a tea bun just out of the oven.
To be honest, I’ve never had the need to wear a sou’wester or a 'salt and pepper' cap but I do love a chic chapeau. And when you think of stylish brims, one would have to include the Panama Hat. I always assumed, as one logically might, that the Panama hat was made in Panama. In fact, the Panama hat is Ecuadorian and I learned a great deal about its history at the Homero Ortega museum in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Five generations of Ortegas have been involved in hat making. Homero learned the skill from his dad. Father and son would trek through the mountains of Ecuador to the port city of Guayaquil. The Ortegas would then sell their wares to the merchants on board vessels. From there, the hats were transported to Panama and sold. So, that’s how the name stuck. It was less about their country of origin and more about the point of international sale.
The Panama's functional popularity took off in the mid 1800s. Miners seeking their fortune during the California Gold Rush travelled via the Isthmus of Panama. They bought the straw hats to protect them from the tropical sun. Around the same time, the Panama hat was showcased at the World Fair in Paris. It caught the eye of style mavens and Ecuador’s straw export soon became the must have accessory among the elite and film stars of the early 20th century. US President Theodore Roosevelt helped promote the Panama’s popularity too. He visited Panama during the construction of the famous canal in 1906 where labourers were wearing Panaman hats. When Roosevelt’s photo from the site appeared in the New York Times, what did he have on his head? You guessed it, a Panama hat.
Since the 16th century, the hat has been made with the toquilla palm. Some are woven so tightly they can double as a water bucket. Each Panama is unique because they are individually created by hand. Today, the intricate weaving is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Homero Ortega’s is just one of many hat makers in Ecuador. A wall in their Cuenca factory boasts the famous lids they’ve covered. Frank Sinatra, Jackie Onassis, Princess Diana, Charlton Heston, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Johnny Depp are among the many celebrities who’ve worn Ortega's genuine Panama hats.
Our tour through the factory started when we saw a man with a wheelbarrow full of limp straw hats. He was headed out back where all the action was happening and we were eager to learn the process. Woven hats are dumped into huge vats of a steaming liquid for washing and bleaching. Once dried, the hats are placed in a variety of differently styled metal moulds. Workers then lower a heated mechanical press onto the mould and, presto, a permanent shape is formed. Nearby, a room full of women in white lab coats work feverishly sewing cloth bands, bows, and other straw adornments onto a rainbow of colourfully dyed head pieces.
I could have spent hours in the showroom trying on each and every one of the beautiful bonnets. How many would I own if I lived in a place where the sun’s rays were too strong and penetrating to go hatless? I imagined a line designed with foreigners like me in mind. For the wind in Newfoundland, I need a Panama hat with chin straps or one made of rubber for the rain, drizzle and fog. Though my homeland's weather may not suit it, I did buy one of the classics. On calm, sunny days I don my shades, put on my Panama and tip my hat to the talented hands in Ecuador.
If you'd like to see more of our tour at the Homero Ortega factory and store, have a look at my photos in the gallery.